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Nearly 50 years in the making, now Dodoma finally coming of age

Peter Kimani

Let me start by saying: “Samahani,” dear reader, this has taken two weeks to write. When one is in Tanzania, the wheels of life grind excruciatingly slowly. I was in Dodoma, designated as the Tanzania’s national capital in 1974 and it’s still in the making, nearly half a century on.

Dodoma was the vision of Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s founding President who’s fondly remembered as the father of the nation. His portrait adorns every public place in Tanzania, nearly 25 years since his demise. The spirit of Nyerere is so woven into the fabric of Tanzania, there are monuments virtually everywhere to memorialise the man. Crucially, he did not make the monuments for himself, as is the case here.

But Nyerere isn’t just remembered through monuments: he resides in the minds of the citizens, even those born long after his demise. In times of crisis, his recordings are played to the public to reignite national ethos that make Tanzania a unique social experiment.

Nyerere had a clear vision for inaugurating Dodoma. It was the physical centre of Tanzania—whose landmass is possibly bigger than Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi put together—and he rightly saw urban settlements as peopled by charlatans with parasitic tendencies.

Perhaps that explains Nyerere’s characterisation of Kenya as a “man eat man society;” a truism that has now gained truth more than ever before. Then powerful Attorney General Charles Njonjo responded by saying Tanzania was a “man eat nothing society.”

Well, there is plenty to eat in Tanzania today, especially in Dodoma, whose development gained momentum under the departed Tanzanian leader, John Magufuli and who, through force of character, pushed for full transfer of government functions to the city, after decades of dithering.

Dodoma remains an urban oddity: it was designed by Canadian and American architects who simply replicated North American suburbia. What Nyerere wanted was a “self-reliant” metropole catering to rural folks while retaining a foothold of their traditional life, in line with Maoist principles.

Flying in from Dar es Salaam, Dodoma lurked as a huge expanse, but it proved much smaller on the ground, starting with the tiny urinal that accommodates two, barely a foot apart, so that one had to restrain from looking elsewhere, lest you see your neighbour going about their business, and standing still to prevent your bum touching your neighbour’s.

The singular baggage carousel the Dodoma airport, probably made for a dozen passengers crammed with two or three dozen, turning it into an absurdist theatre as all eyes were cast on the black belt that spooled silently for ten minutes, before spewing out the cargo.

I grabbed my luggage and headed out, making the short drive with a chatty driver, a Tanzanian of Asian origin, who gushed about his changed fortunes through the contacts that he has developed in recent years. He said he started off as a fish monger but when the firm folded up, he took his wife’s modest vehicle and started his taxi business.

Now he’s been able to buy return the wife’s car and buy two new ones and he’s glad he made the move to Dodoma.

Had the Dodoma project been unfolding in Kenya, our enterprising leaders would have worked overnight to ensure land prices are artificially stimulated and ordinary folks driven out of town.

But since such imperatives are absent in Tanzania, Dodoma remains unattractive to Dar-based technocrats. They want to remain in Dar to enjoy the sea breeze and not the dust-swept boulevards of Dodoma.

Then again, we haven’t had a leader as visionary as Nyerere, that’s why Isiolo, the proper centre of Kenya, is unlikely to rise to Dodoma’s prominence since private gain, as always, beats public good.  

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